Leading Blog






11.14.22

The President’s Man: Insights into the Nixon White House

Presidents Man

ON the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, we have a more nuanced account of the Nixon White House in The President’s Man, from the perspective of his personal aide Dwight Chapman. To the curious and open-minded, his perspective is illuminating. Time always provides depth.

Chapman says his life changed for the better and forever when he was introduced to Bob Haldeman on the campaign for Nixon’s 1962 run for California governor. As they say, the rest is history. Haldeman, an “unbelievably intelligent” and an “unfailing decent man,” became his mentor and closest friend.

Over time, he learned Nixon’s needs and habits and became a trusted aide and Deputy Assistant. Nixon once advised him, “Dwight, as you go through life, just always remember the key thing is keeping your learning curve vertical.” Never stop learning.

Here are some of the insights from the memoir:

UNDERSTANDING NIXON

❧ Sometimes out of anger or his own frustration or whatever his emotion, [Nixon] just spouted off. He would say things he didn’t really mean. Some historians have overlooked that very human trait—that he was subject to the same passions and shortcomings as the rest of us.

❧ Great damage was done to President Nixon’s reputation by his inclination to issue knee-jerk orders or demands that he really didn’t expect to be carried out. These impulsive reactions, when taped and then replayed by the media, served to undermine his character and created a false impression of the man I knew.

❧ Nixon always cared about how people were treated. He knew that little things mattered. The bigger and more prominent the person was, the more the little things they did mattered to those they encountered.

❧ [Nixon] was a reader, especially about the great men of both recent and distant history.

❧ Meeting leaders in Europe and Asia, he learned from those men how they “think.” He loved talking about thinking. He asked those leaders, personally, how they thought, why they governed the way they did. Nixon was intellectually curious. He was a seeker of the “hows” of leading, of political life.

KISSINGER

❧ Some former colleagues were critical of Kissinger’s maneuvering and what they saw as his “propensity to eclipse” the president. I never saw it that way. Nixon towered over Kissinger, in my view. I dismissed Kissinger’s need for gratification as being just that: a need for gratification. I never saw him as anti-Nixon.

❧ The two of them [Nixon and Kissinger] had tremendous chemistry. Both were extremely smart, knowledgeable, and creative. They were both strategic thinkers. They fed off each other’s minds. They were able to talk to each other on a very sophisticated level. Nix on would develop his strategy and henry would get on an airplane and fly off to negotiate. I have always described their relationship as Nixon being the architect and Henry being the builder. That was certainly true where Vietnam was concerned.

DECISION-MAKING

❧ Richard Nixon did not make impulsive or emotional decisions. Everything he did was considered and weighed.

❧ The president wanted Haldeman to put in place a system that maximized the efficient exchange of ideas; put a focus on providing the information necessary for informed and wise decision-making; and provided for the discipline necessary to make it all work.

❧ He would review options incessantly, looping back over subjects previously covered, until, in his mind he had finally reached a decision or point of view with which he was comfortable. If a decision had to be made quickly, he could make it quickly.

❧ Nixon chose to surround himself with intelligent people who he knew wouldn’t necessarily agree with him on everything. He wanted to work with people who would challenge him intellectually.

❧ What Nixon did so well, usually, was move people toward a consensus. This was great when there was no time pressure. He was a very perceptive man and had the ability to get things done. When necessary, he would pit those people against each other, in an intellectually competitive way, using them as a way to forge a solution.

PRESS

❧ I think his anticipation of the continual negative attacks by the press became too ingrained in his psyche and created complicated and unnecessary mental roadblocks for him.

❧ The press did everything possible to reinforce the negative image it had helped create, too often misrepresenting details and facts.

TAPES

❧ The abuse of power tapes are 5 to 7 percent of the total. How many people would want that grayer side of their illustrious life measured by the 7 percent where they may have done or said inappropriate things?

VIETNAM

❧ Without the protestors knowing, they were reinforcing the enemy’s determination not to end the war short of complete U.S. capitulation, and therefore prolonging it. North Vietnam premier Pham Van Dong’s message of support to protestors before the October 15 moratorium was a nail in the coffin of Nixon’s plan to end the war by the end of 1969. The protestors forced Nixon to back off his threats to use force to end the war if North Vietnam wasn’t a productive partner in negotiations.

❧ It is important to note that black bag operations had been executed in previous administrations and were approved by, even run by, the FBI. In past administrations it was the FBI that conducted black bag operations under the cover of national interests. It was the Nixon White House that brought these operations in-house in order to find and plug leaks.

CHINA

❧ Nixon said, “We are going to China because in fifty years we will be adversaries and we must be able to talk to one another.”

WATERGATE

❧ One of the reasons the White House response was lacking is that the president had no idea of exactly what had happened, or why it had happened. He was treating it like a public relations problem.

❧ John Mitchell said, “The public generally does not understand what Watergate was all about and never will. Americans believe that everything that happened during the pertinent time was wrong because [they were] told that such was the case and never thought it out.” The result was that “the country lost a very competent president during a time when it needed him, particularly in the field of foreign affairs.”

❧ The main lesson to be learned from Watergate, wrote Haldeman, “would seem to be the basic point that any problem must be dealt with openly and realistically—not put aside or covered up.”

❧ There is no question that there was a real crime and that it was being covered up. However, people in positions of power were not thinking criminally. The were thinking, as Haldeman clearly believed, “containment,” political containment. Richard Nixon responded instinctively based on everything that had happened to him in his political career. His first thought must have been, Here they come. They’re coming after me again. This wasn’t paranoia. They really had come after him in the past and they were coming after him again. But rather than putting that feeling aside and focusing on how to best handle the situation, he made the worst possible decision. He started fighting back. Worse, he did so without knowing the facts. The president was being misled and wrongly advised by Joh Dean. His trusted counsel was providing the president with incomplete and often misleading information in an apparent effort to save himself—not to faithfully advise the president.

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